Chicago's Gallery Anonymous / Lakeshore Carvings

Status

Extant

Address

Chicago Lakeshore , Chicago, Illinois, United States

Built

early 1900s to present

Visiting Information

The carvings and paintings are discoverable on the limestone blocks installed on the lakeshore from Chicago's North to South Sides. 

About the Artist/Site

In the 1890s the natural Chicago shoreline was expanded out into Lake Michigan in order to create more space for the lakeshore recreation that the city is well known for today. In 1910, the city began implementing shoreline protection structures to mitigate the risk of erosion. Called revetments, these sloping constructions were installed on banks to absorb the impact of incoming waves. The lakeshore revetments were constructed from wooden cribs filled with rocks and topped with large limestone blocks. These blocks unintentionally became another opportunity for lakeshore entertainment as hundreds of them were (and continue to be) creatively engaged through carving, painting, and other forms of decoration. 

Chicago gallerist Aron Packer began photographing the carved blocks in 1986, calling the lakeshore installation “Chicago’s Gallery Anonymous.” Nobody knows when or why unknown artists began transforming this human-made landscape, but the earliest signed carving is dated 1931. Since at least that time, numerous artists have left their mark through renderings of animals, faces, caricatures, political commentary, professions of love, signatures, gang markers, and more. 

While hundreds of these blocks (both decorated and undecorated) continue to protect the lakeshore, many were removed beginning in the late 1990s after low water levels in the 1960s left some revetments damaged due to air exposure. The Army Corps of Engineers project was designed to repair the lakeshore protection as economically as possible and did not consider the historical and cultural value of the limestone installations. The only community that called to preserve the original revetments was Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side as it was felt that the new concrete constructions would make visitors to Promontory Point feel unwelcome. The limestone remains, and in 2018, Promontory Point was added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

On the North Side, the original revetments were replaced on a three mile stretch from Fullerton Avenue to Montrose Beach. A few dozen limestone blocks were saved and installed above the new revetments, but most were discarded. From Montrose Harbor to Hollywood Beach, the old limestone blocks remain and with them, hundreds of carvings and drawings. 

Bill Swislow’s research (which guided this entry) shows that this eruption of anonymous lakeside artwork is almost entirely unique; the only other example of similar work he discovered was a handful of carved blocks along the seaside in Barcelona.

 

Sources: 

Materials

limestone blocks

Map & Site Information

Chicago Lakeshore
Chicago, Illinois us
Latitude/Longitude: 41.8939186 / -87.6153661

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